Review of The Demons by Dostoyevsky
This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. I say this completely sober. Mostly sober. Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Carl Hiaasen: all real knee-slappers, no question, but Fyodor brings it to a new level. Sure, there’s his incessant rants about the flagellation of the human soul and how the Russian Orthodox church is the only salvation for mankind, and yes there’s depravity and horror and all manner of grotesque introspection into the nature of sin, but it’s also just loaded with laughs. Think Gogol or Dickens with an extra helping of murder and spiritual degradation. It may be the juxtaposition of these serious themes with utterly slapstick comedy is what makes this book especially powerful. Fyodor goes to town lampooning everyone he can find, from the devout revolutionaries to the bumbling bureaucrats to the social dandies. He’s all about equal opportunity satire. It’s brutal at times, but that’s what makes great comedy, the germ of hard truth behind the joke. The story structure is pretty nifty, loosely built around the escapades of two character pairs that represent complementary reflections of each other, describing a generational divide in their respective outlooks. First there’s the ultimate odd couple of Mr. Verkhovensky, the meek and sympathetic failed intellectual, and his patroness Mrs. Stavrogin, the wealthy widowed town matron. Their hijinks mirror the more serious endeavors of their sons, the ruthless, ambitious revolutionary Peter Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin, the enigmatic heartthrob who’s got the whole town fearful of his vicious prowess. (Yes, and there’s poor Shatov, arguably the most important figure in the story; he fits in there somehow too.) There’s a lot of talk, to be sure, but it’s a joy to watch how Dostoyevsky wrangles a whole herd of characters effortlessly through the plot. Fyodor’s signature talent is squeezing his entire cast into a single climactic scene such that they all interact completely natural like, with every convoluted and complicated interchange playing out smooth as butter. The most confusing part is getting all the names straight, seeing as how those Russians all have at least three names that are used interchangeably (first, patronymic, surname), not to mention any nick-names that might pop up. But give it a few chapters and soon enough you’ll have it all figured out. Despite that he’s talking about a society on the other side of the world from me, more than a century ago, there’s so much that’s familiar. The people he describes are just the kind that we’ve all run into, and you’ll most likely recognize them on their first introduction, painfully or otherwise. I admit the ending isn’t side-splitting humor, what with everyone dying or finding Jesus, or both, but there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments on the way to getting there. So overall, top-notch stuff.